September 10, 2016

TIFF16 First Friday: Saint Jane

 Capsule reviews and commentary from films seen Friday Sept 9th at the Toronto International Film Festival:

Citizen Jane: Battle For the City (US, Matt Tyrnauer, 4.5) Documentary recounts the David and Goliath throwdown between writer Jane Jacobs’ vision of a vibrant, street focused city took on Robert Moses’ modernist urban renewalism and its mania for towering housing projects and downtown expressways. Magisterially presents a web of information and ideas as a gripping conflict with real emotional stakes.

This jumps into the “Robin is disportionately moved by a documentary” slot inaugurated last year by Hitchcock/Truffaut. To contextualize this: if you are terrified of spiders, I am too, except cross out “spiders” and write “Toronto’s deliberately botched march to high-density condo development.” So what Arachnophobia was to you, this film is to me.

Toronto lets no city outdo its reverence for Jane Jacobs, After the events depicted in this film she moved here and led a fight against a colossally misconceived expressway proposal that would have cut the downtown in two. On her passing she transmigrated to the celestial spheres to become our patron saint of liveable urbanism. So a sequel might be titled Citizen Jane: the Spadina Reckoning.

This world premiere screening unspooled* not only in the neighborhood Jacobs lived in and saved, but in her local movie house. Though what she might make of its transformation from scrappy rep house The Bloor to high-falutin’, sightline-obstructed Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema might best be left to the imagination. Or we can ask her when a ritual summoning brings her back to smite John Tory and teaches today's activists the importance of putting on a good show.

When the film lacks archival audio for a quote from the high-handed Robert Moses, it turns to Vincent D’onofrio for a voice-over. I don’t know if director Matt Tyrnauer is a fan of the “Daredevil” TV show, but hearing D’onofrio step assume another urban renewalist antagonist role does add a certain piquancy.

The Empty Box (Mexico, Claudia Sainte-Luce, 4) Aspiring playwright) pieces together moments from the life of her distant father (Jimmy Jean-Louis) after he is stricken with dementia. Perfectly modulated drama, drawn from the experience of director/writer/lead actress Sainte-Luce, never strikes a note too hard.

The cast was present at the screening, include Jimmy Jean-Louis, whose nerdcentric credits include playing the Haitian on “Heroes.”

Pyromaniac (Norway,  Erik Skjoldbj√¶rg, 4) Young volunteer fireman goes on an arson spree. True crime character study fosters a strong sense of authenticity as it looks at how isolating it can be to live in a small town where everyone knows everyone and you can never quite bring off a social interaction.

*Yeah yeah I know few films unspool these days. But “spat ones and zeroes” just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus. If you’ve heard of a film showing at TIFF, I’m probably waiting to see it during its upcoming conventional release, instead favoring choices that don’t have distribution and might not reappear.